(james benedict brown) on the road

Into the soil

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 17 March, 2009

Like two new parents leaving the maternity ward for the very first time, we carried two carefully packed boxes of heavily chitted seed potatoes from our apartment up to the allotment yesterday. With the gung ho enthusiasm of two people who don’t have a clue what they’re doing, we’ve ploughed a not inconsiderable amount of time, money and labour into our little half-plot allotment garden. Yesterday marked the beginning of the next phase in our nascent gardening careers. Our little babies were taking their first steps in the outside world.

Amongst various other crops, we’re experimenting with two kinds of seed potato: a second early called Lady Balfour and a maincrop called Vales Everest. These are not the most common varieties found in our allotments, but since we’re surrounded by cheap greengrocers and food stores in Govanhill and since we hope to have many more years of gardening ahead of us, we wanted to try two unusual (but nonetheless reportedly hardy) varieties. They arrived about a month ago, and have spent the intervening time sitting in egg boxes by our tall living room window. Glasgow tenements like ours aren’t much good for germinating seeds that need heat (as we have discovered) but the tall ceilings and large windows make this kind of light based germination (the right term for potatoes?) nice and easy.

The little green-purple sprouts that have appeared on the potatoes are mostly firm, although they still seem remarkably delicate. I was about to toss them all into canvas bags for the short walk to the plot, but we realised it would probably be safer to pack them in boxes. Over-cautious, perhaps, but that sort of detail is precisely the sort of question (how to transport potatoes that have chitted) that gardening books and seed packets don’t explain. Qualitative planting guidelines are great – e.g. “plant potatoes 20cm apart in drills 30cm apart”- but the precise situation we’re in always raises other questions – how close to our path can we plant a drill of potatoes without the crop growing under it?

Based on the conversations we’ve been having with neighbouring gardenings and from the information we’ve been reading, I’ve established two fairly comforting maxims since starting on our allotment. One – there is rarely a consensus about how to do something (sk two people in our allotments how they would do something and you will get two contradictory answers) and two – stop worrying. Since taking on the plot early in the year we’ve weeded it repeatedly, turned the soil and weeded it again before investing in a truck load of horse manure. In the words of one particularly helpful allotment holder nearby “everything wants to grow once it’s in the ground.”

These principles mirror with remarkable accuracy my experience of learning architecture at university. There are always two conflicting answers to every question, and ultimately it doesn’t matter so much as to lose sleep over it. We have a small plot and have squeezed as much in as we can for this first year. Whatever grows will be celebrated by the nervous young parents of this plot.



Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 28 February, 2009

My first built project is emerging from the mud of the Queen’s Park allotments. It could well also be my first application to the Macallan Club, but its significance is no less important to me.

There’s an apartment complex in Northern Ireland to which I made some modest design contributions as a part one architect some years ago. It’s going to be completed later this year, and I caught an unexpected glimpse of it from a moving train a couple of months ago. That was probably the first time that I – as a young semi-legal architect – had come face to face with something I had had my hand in, albeit from a distance and not actually showing much of my work.

This is different, however, and building it has been an education. There have been some arguments (with nails, luckily, not my long suffering co-constructor) and there are some notable problems (notably that it is six inches too close to the adjacent path). We’re a couple more days away from finishing it; at the moment only three sides are approaching what you might call a state of functional enclosure. With the exception of the nuts, bolts, screws and nails, all of the material is reclaimed, some from Glasgow Wood Recycling, other bits and pieces from Freecycle and the heavily littered streets of Glasgow. The material cost has, in fact, been minimal; the small budget has mostly been spent on those small pieces of ironmongery and transportation.

My dream car used to be a modest second hand Saab or Capri; something unreliable and extravagant. Now I have a hankering for a Vivaro or Transit panel van. Much more useful.

As Britain continues its apparently unstoppable plunge into a recession, my advice to unemployed graduates like myself has been to keep busy and to keep physically active. In other words, get an allotment. The hours up there just fly by. For unemployed architects (especially young ‘uns like myself with no built credits to there name) consider an allotment without a shed. It’s been an unexpected opportunity to call upon the plentiful resources of free material in this city, and has produced something that I’m already beginning to identify as having direct (if not conscious) influences from buildings and design I’ve seen and absorbed over the last few years.

Now we just have to finish the damned thing…


Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 6 February, 2009


For the first time in my life, I have achieved something in a garden. Above, our half-plot as we received it. And 2 weeks later…


A couple of cm of snow, and now two or three nights of hard frosts are hopefully killing off the exposed roots of any of the weeds I wasn’t able to dig out myself. The soil seems in good quality, although we have (with very generous help from neighbouring plot holders) located a plentiful source of free horse manure and now plan to bring a truck load in.


Meanwhile, a day with a panel van produced five euro palettes in striking colours (from the pavements of Govanhill and Tradeston), seven doors (Freecycle) and concrete blocks for foundations (from Travis Perkins, the only items that required purchase). More materials are hopefully in the pipeline, or whatever conduit it is that brings materials to the allotment…

On my hands and knees in the mud

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 24 January, 2009

We are moving up in the world, so to speak. I don’t need to borrow a patch of mud to crawl around in, we have our own.

As you can see, it’s not bad mud to be crawling around in, although this photograph was taken after many hours of said crawling (and weeding). It has been a not unreasonably damp January in Glasgow, and taking on an half-size allotment garden that has not been tended to since before Christmas has given us plenty to do. The soil is generally in good condition, although it decidedly damper at one end than the other. We have yet to establish soil pH, and have been warned about many known instances of Horsetail on this plot. Some of the (many) people who have taken the time to lean over our fence and share a suggestion or two have advised us to do everything we can to get rid of it. Others, more prosaically, have just told us to keep bashing at it, since it doesn’t really interfere with anything else we might be growing. That said, the root system is likely to be draining the soil of nutrients that could be used elsewhere, so we’re on guard, although I’m not entirely sure what to be looking for in this largely dormant soggy soil.

A handy delivery of some old palettes from Glasgow Wood Recycling has allowed us to whip up a compost bin. Somewhat oversized, it has made a modest pile of rotting vegetables look even more modest, but my competitive spirit has been piqued, and I intend to consume many more vegetables this year so as to help the pile get on its way.


The advantage of my employment (sic) is that I have plenty of time to spend up here. I say ‘up here’ because Queen’s Park is on a large hill, and our second floor apartment is at least five or six floors lower in altitude than our plot. While much of Queen’s Park is pretty drab right now, today the first hint of winter relenting was felt in the air. Perhaps that was premature, but there is usually a spring in my step when I climb the hill to dump some compost and crawl through the dirty looking for roots that could come back to life when it warms up.

I blog therefore I dig.

Posted in Posts by James Benedict Brown on 30 October, 2008

October and November are not the most obvious months to be out on an allotment garden. The air is heavy with moisture, the skies are changeable shades of grey and the only colours to be seen are jaundiced yellow leaves that catch the frequent gusts and stick moistly to my overcoat. Everything living is receding for the winter (including myself, as I re-discover the concealed efficacy of silk long-johns on cold winter days) and vegetation is dying back. But, we have been given the opportunity to work on a slice of a community plot (and thereby keep ourselves busy while we join the end of a very long waiting list for a full sized plot of our own) and the ever shortening days are potentially a very sensible time to start working.

The allotments we’ve joined are heavily oversubscribed for a reason. Surrounded by a beautiful city park, they sit on top of a hill from which Mary Queen of Scots observed her army’s defeat at the Battle of Langside in 1568. It is an idyllic urban location, with good sunlight, plentiful shelter from the trees that surround the site and only modest incursions from the rabbits that gambol about in the park. Slugs are apparently a problem, but with the naïevity of someone who has never lunged a pitchfork into wet soil, I am prepared to give it a go.

There are a handful of plots in Queens Park that are shared – beginners like myself have every reason to be daunted by starting out on a large plot, so I’m hopeful that from small seeds modest crops will grow in a small bed. Although I must admit it’s a fairly depressing prospect being out of doors trying to clear leaves and turn soil right now, it is arguably the best time of the year to be starting a new plot.

The last week or two have not been well spent, although I make regular trips to the allotment to dump organic waste on the promising compost heap. Plodding around the makeshift paths that intertwine the various plots, I’ve been trying to find inspiration in our new neighbours’ projects. Different plots demonstrate different levels of activity and different aspirations.

Will my modest aspirations succeed or amount to anything tangible? I blog, therefore I am. So now that I’ve told you about it, I have no way of avoiding the hard work this is going to need.